There’s a moment in Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992) when Dr. Beth Garner tries to warn her on-again off-again lover, Detective Nick Curran, of the danger posed by his prime suspect in a homicide investigation: the infinitely alluring and devious Catherine Trammel. Flustered that Nick cannot see himself as the pawn in Catherine’s manipulations, Garner exclaims: “She’s evil! She’s brilliant!” As over-the-top as this declaration is (we’d expect nothing less from Verhoeven, after all), it is true that Western cinema and culture is endlessly fascinated by the figure of the femme fatale. That the so-called fairer sex may turn villainous unsettles persistent gender expectations, effectively creating a “problem” that must be solved. Defying the prescribed norms of passivity and maternal instincts, the femme fatale is both captivating and Other. She’s evil, she’s brilliant, often she’s sexy, and she’s almost always an enigma.
Of course, the “bunny boilers” and “psycho bitches” of popular cinema have already received much scholarly attention. These prior studies tend to look at the dangerous female figure as a cultural symptom, or as discrete manifestations of popular and genre cinema. For instance, if Disclosure’s (Barry Levinson, 1994) Demi Moore wears aggressive shoulder pads and touches Michael Douglas inappropriately, perhaps we should interpret this less as the actions of a power-hungry individual, and rather as indicative of more pervasive fears about the rise of the 1990s career woman. Alternatively, we might look to the heroine of rape-revenge movies who gleefully dispatches her attacker/s in the appropriately brutal eye-for-an-eye logic of the genre, or the resourceful and virginal “final girl” of the slasher film. Janice Loreck’s Violent Women in Contemporary Cinema departs from this tendency, extrapolating the fascination with the violent female outside of mainstream and genre cinemas in a compelling collection of six case studies. Unpacking an ideological paradox whereby the violent woman is culturally figured as both an aberration of feminine values, and at the same time evidence of some intrinsic cruelty (the “deadlier than the male” myth), Loreck proves that there is indeed new territory to uncover. If the violent woman is a perennial mystery, what becomes of her in art cinema, which tends towards indeterminacy, and which is known for exploring the nuances of human complexity? How do these films engage style to express and conceal the violent woman’s subjectivity? The result is a multifaceted investigation into gender, genre, culture and aesthetics.
Chapters 1-3 investigate varying manifestations of the violent woman in films associated with the New Extreme, a tendency in art-house and festival fare that has been stirring controversy since the late 1990s. Notorious for straddling an uneasy line between the cerebral appeals of high art, and lowbrow thrills of genre cinema, namely explicit sex and brutal violence, the New Extreme is fertile territory for examining the contemporary violent woman’s mystery. Beginning with a case study of Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009), Loreck opens by examining critics’ frustration with a film that many deemed misogynist for its dabbling in outdated ideas about female hysteria. This frustration, Loreck carefully reasons, is in response to narrative framing that suggests the film will uncover the mystery of its troubled and enigmatic female protagonist, only to thwart our expectations. In a perceptive analysis of the ways in which Antichrist’s art-horror aesthetic informs its gender representations, Loreck challenges common and misguided charges to the film’s sexism by also calling attention to its nuanced critique of male hubris – an under-examined trope in von Trier’s work. Antichrist, Loreck argues, is frustrating for the audience precisely because it “reserves its most strident criticism, not for femininity or female evil, but for the spectator and his or her expectation of the art-film text.” (p. 35)
Chapter two builds upon these themes of the male and, by proxy, the spectator’s “knowledge-seeking gaze”, turning the focus towards the monstrous female in Clair Denis’s visceral and deeply unsettling Trouble Every Day (2001). In this instance the film centres around both a femme fatale, Coré, and an homme fatal, Shane – strangers afflicted with a mysterious malady that compels them to savagely attack their sexual partners. While the tactile and haptic qualities of Denis’s film have already attracted the attention of several scholars,1 Loreck extends these observations, noting that the permeable divisions between subject and object, film and spectator give insight into the dangerous female as a force inhospitable to observation and containment that the film’s science-fiction elements seem to demand. Thematically, there is some overlap with the previous chapter, however, Loreck’s most interesting observations come in her analysis of Trouble Every Day’s affecting style; its disorienting sonic and spatial qualities relentlessly undermine the detached voyeurism typical of films which centre around the masculine scientific interrogation of a feminine monstrous object.
The last of the New Extreme case studies focuses on the notorious Baise-Moi (Coralie Trinh Thi and Virginie Despentes, 2000), a tale of two disenfranchised young women in Paris who go on a graphically depicted spree of sex and violence. Where Antichrist is rendered with the sumptuous signifiers of high art photography, Baise-Moi inhabits the other end of the aesthetic spectrum; it is gritty and raw, recruiting the vocabulary of low budget exploitation and hard core pornography. Loreck masterfully traces the intersection of style and discourse, wringing the film’s differences from more conventional genres and the role its censorship battles had in elevating its critical status.2 This chapter examines how Baise-Moi’s hard core heterosexual spectacle both articulates the violent female’s subjectivity, and destabilises the voyeuristic pleasure traditionally associated with sexual display. Loreck gives a fascinating analysis of the film and its fraught politics, considering the ways Baise-Moi negotiates the bind one necessarily enters when appropriating the language of something as a means to critique it. Convincingly, Loreck lays out an argument for the film’s employment of hard core’s “frenzy of the visible” as reflexively turning the gaze back towards the spectator, a move that disrupts erotic pleasure.3
In its second half, Violent Women in Contemporary Cinema moves away from the new extremity of Europe, to examine films that derive their dramatic impulse from demystifying their central characters. Chapter four considers the ubiquitous archetype of the “killer lesbian” via a case study of Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, 1994), a film inspired by the real-life 1954 murder of Honora Parker in New Zealand. Again, while the villainous queers of Hollywood cinema have already been fruitfully analysed elsewhere, Loreck identifies and interrogates the crucial differences to be found beyond a mainstream tradition that has tended to bind female violence to titillating but perverse desire. Here, Jackson’s film is a curious departure, opposing “earlier iterations of the lesbian murderess as an arcane figure by securing the spectator’s allegiance with the protagonists at all times.” (p. 97) The film opens with a flash-forward in which the two girls who will become the film’s protagonists run blood-spattered and screaming from the scene of a murder they have just committed, before it retrospectively charts their meeting and connection which will ultimately lead to this moment. Such a structure ostensibly suggests the true-crime thriller that promises to investigate the lead up to and causes for the perpetrators’ actions, and yet, as Loreck explores, the majority of the film draws more heavily from the tradition of romance, pitching the girls’ genuine bond against the stifling hypocrisy of the heteronormative authorities (predominately parents, school teachers, and doctors) that conspire to separate them. This affective alignment is further enforced by Jackson’s expressive mise en scène, which figures the girls’ partnership as a liberatory and creative force. Where Trouble Every Day works to break down the boundaries between spectator and monster by sensorial involvement, Loreck argues that the desire to comprehend the violent woman is combined with an impulse to align viewers with the dangerous woman’s experience through the relatable tropes of romantic union.
In chapter five, Loreck examines the violent woman of the biopic, a genre chiefly concerned with tracing and accounting for a significant individual’s life. While such films are, as Loreck notes, more often than not reserved for laudable characters, recent cinema has brought several films dedicated to more transgressive personas, a trend exemplified by the independent film Monster (Patty Jenkins, 2003). Humanising and demystifying renowned female serial killer Aileen Wuornos via the formal structure of the biopic, Monster both elicits sympathy for its troubled protagonist and offers rational motives for her actions. Such a subject continues and expands Loreck’s interrogation of the relationship between style, formal expectations and varying constructions of violent female subjectivity with interesting results. In contrast to films like Antichrist and Trouble Every Day – which suggest that the violent female enigma will be resolved, only to ultimately maintain her mystery – the limits and expectations of the biopic form require a response. As Loreck argues, the strategies of the biopic genre “methodically delineate the aetiologies of female violence, counteracting the construction of violent women as enigmatic beings within film discourse.” (p. 120) At the same time, however, films like Monster also open up a space in contemporary cinema, in which dominant representations of violent femininity as ultimately inscrutable might be challenged and revised.
The final chapter of Loreck’s study focuses on the ways that melodrama shapes the violent woman’s subjectivity. Taking The Reader (Stephen Daldry, 2008) as its key text, this chapter considers the enigma of the female Nazi – her capacity for and culpability in atrocity. Where the biopic is built upon an impetus to reveal and explain, the melodramatic impulse evinced in The Reader is to examine the personal import of past decisions upon present relationships. While there is pleasure to be gained in trying to unmask the violent woman, and to discern her moral agency, the film, Loreck argues, is torn between two competing impulses. The violent female is enigmatic, a quality aided by Winslet’s complex performance, thus equating “feminine unknowability with the unfathomableness of the Holocaust.” (p. 140) But, at the same time, the genre, and perhaps the historical referent itself, demand a level of moral clarity by which we might assign her actions to psychology – lest she, and other war perpetrators be exculpated as entirely Other. In this sense, the film must gesture towards an interior psychology, albeit one that is withheld.
While Violent Women in Contemporary Cinema is structured around select case studies, Loreck deftly illustrates the significance of these works within their wider context. Attuned to the films’ position within a broader discursive framing – the femme fatale in The Reader is, for instance, worlds away from the sadistic mistresses found in Nazisploitation – Loreck demonstrates her chosen texts as a way of delving into broader questions of gender, genre and representation. Tracing the intersections with and departures from popular cinema, Violent Women in Contemporary Cinema offers a comprehensive look at key films that ask us to rethink the violent woman. As Loreck’s study conveys, it is never simply a matter of plot or characterisation: the films’ ideological values are as tightly entwined with style and structure, itself informed by the taste-economies that shape independent and art cinema. Re-addressing varying manifestations of the violent female archetype, from killer lesbian to sexy but dangerous seductress, Loreck sheds new light on the violent woman’s capacity to subvert gender norms and destabilise our notions of gendered subjectivity.
Janice Loreck, Violent Women in Contemporary Cinema (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)
- Martine Beugnet, for instance, gives an extensive reading of Trouble Every Day’s “haptic” qualities. See Cinema of Sensation: French Film and the Art of Transgression (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007). ↩
- Baise-Moi in its uncut version is still refused classification in Australia, although a censored version was broadcast on SBS in 2013. ↩
- Linda Williams describes the impulse in hard core pornography to stage and shoot for maximum visibility. See Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the ‘Frenzy of the Visible’ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989). ↩